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Feeling at Home in a Foreign Land

Varsha Suresh makes the best out of her university days

(Photo by Eric Sin)

A man must go to many places, travel widely in the world,
before he is wise enough to see the workings of other men’s minds.

Found in Poetic Edda as one of the anonymous poems from the Old Norse, this ancient piece of wisdom shared by the Vikings, albeit some 10 centuries ago, still shows much sagacity in the present days: travel makes you astute because you will see things in a different light—whether it is to ideas, beliefs or any preconceived opinions of a certain place—and only by developing deeper understanding of other cultures can we truly form a unique and unbiased perspective on the other parts of the world.

That is the very reason why Varsha Suresh decided to come to Hong Kong for her university studies.

‘This could be one of the best decisions I have made in my life,’ said Varsha, a Year 2 Biomedical Sciences student. ‘On second thought, this is the best decision I have ever made!’ she corrected.

Although most of the lectures are taught via ZOOM, Varsha loves to occasionally come back to campus and take a stroll <em>(Photo by Eric Sin)</em>

The path that Varsha chooses to take has much to do with her mixed identity: she is Indian by nationality but moved to Singapore when she was seven years old. Proficient in English, Tamil and Hindi, Varsha learns that in every word, intonation or sentence in a language lies a riveting story of adventure, culture and beauty. ‘Exposure to other cultures certainly grants you a better perspective on life. You will have greater empathy and will be more sensitive to people around you, especially those who have a different cultural background from yours.’

It is thus not difficult to imagine her disposition to travel abroad and set foot on foreign soil at the earliest opportunity. ‘I immediately accepted the offer from CUHK with no hesitation. Unlike most of my peers, I always love the hustle and bustle of big cities. Besides, I heard that you will not know what true Milk Tea and Pineapple Bun taste like until you have been to Hong Kong!’ she chortled.

Having studied in Hong Kong for about a year and a half, Varsha goes all out and lives her university life to the fullest: apart from being the secretary of the Student Council in Morningside College and event officer of the Association of Indian Students, she also makes sure to spend quality time with her friends. ‘Your university buddies are basically your non-blood family. You cannot live a day without them,’ said Varsha.

‘Back when we were still living on campus, we often had spontaneous ice cream and movie nights. Although the hostel was closed around last summer owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, we still manage to keep in touch with each other through ZOOM and social media these days.’

Varsha <em>(rightmost)</em> and her friends at Diwali—the 'Festival of Lights'—at CUHK Indian Festivals <em>(courtesy of interviewee)</em>

Despite the picture-perfect College experience, Varsha had suffered a minor cultural shock when she first arrived in Hong Kong. ‘People have constantly said that Hong Kong is pretty much the same as Singapore in all aspects, but nothing could be further from the truth.’

One of the things that caught her off guard is the unexpected language barrier she encountered in daily life. ‘I was pretty surprised to find out that quite a lot of Hongkongers do not speak English at all. Even if they do speak English, people would rather prefer to stick to their mother tongue whenever they can.’

This ‘Chinese first, English second’ mind-set had, unfortunately, created various hiccups in her academic studies. ‘At one time I was assigned to work with other local students for a coursework project. Being the only foreigner in the group, my groupmates tended to talk among themselves in Cantonese during meetings. They behaved as if I was the odd duck and purposefully chose to keep me out of the loop.’

Soon she realized her first impression of the others was actually misguided and unwarranted. ‘We later went to an old age home to interview a patient and were subsequently tasked to write a report. Much to my chagrin, the interview was conducted in Cantonese and I had no clue what was going on. While I was wracking my brain to figure out a solution, some groupmates took initiatives to translate and gave me an English transcript of the conversation. I was so touched by their kindness.’

The lesson that Varsha learnt is an invaluable one. ‘No one in the group has intended to be rude or ignorant. They were just too shy to speak in another language and reach out to me,’ she reflected. Indeed, a solution to an abstruse conundrum can be simple and easy, and here, a gesture of solicitude is all it takes. ‘The crux is to communicate with each other and talk it through. Never assume, and seek help if needed. The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.’

Varsha joined the Summer Undergraduate Biomedical Research Attachment at CUHK and worked at the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine for eight weeks <em>(courtesy of interviewee)</em>

Such experience also helps Varsha to put things into perspective. ‘Just as the old saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Likewise, to “do as the Hongkongers do”, what could be better than learning the language of this very place?’

And so she took Cantonese and Mandarin courses offered by CUHK to learn the basics of the tongues, as well as various general education courses to familiarize herself with the cultures and historical developments of Hong Kong. ‘Attending these classes really helps me to embrace and appreciate local cultures and values. They also provide great opportunities to meet new people and expand a student’s social circle.’

With two and a half years of her undergraduate studies remaining, Varsha is determined to live her campus life with flair and laughter. ‘There are so many things waiting to be checked off my bucket list, like climbing the Lion Rock and completing the hike at Dragon’s Back!’ she said joyously.

At the end of the interview, Varsha gave all fellow students a piece of advice. ‘There are definitely ups and downs in your days at university, but life is just like that, isn’t it? So instead of focusing on the negatives and cocooning yourself from the world, why not make the best of everything and strut your university days with mirth and exuberance?’

By ronaldluk@cuhkcontents

diversity and inclusion campus diversity Varsha Suresh Indian students international students students School of Biomedical Sciences Morningside College